Literature Works Interview

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Literature Works is a regional literature development agency which focusses on south west England. As part of the ongoing promotional work for The English River, Virginia recently spoke to them about the inspirations behind the book, the influence of Thomas Hardy and how her long musical history connects with her approach to writing.

Discussing the connections between her music and her poetry, Virginia commented on the links that draw these talents together.

[su_quote]I think there’s a deep connection between song-writing and poetry. They feel like hybrid forms of the same thing. Many songs and poems filter from personal experiences and for me there’s a sense of working things out by writing them out. Problems are solved walking too, again this link back to being outdoors. I started writing prose first, and then gradually poetry took over. But I miss writing music and lately have been writing music to go with the river poems.

The Literature Works review of The English River summed up the work as: “A stunning debut which showcases Astley’s grasp of multi artform working to have created a collection which musical, complex, moving and beautifully well realised”.

The English River: Caught By The River Review

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Writer Richard King has penned a glowing review for The English River on the Caught By The River website. Author of How Soon Is Now? and the forthcoming Original Rockers. The Lark Ascending, Richard offers an intriguing combination of review and insight.

Four years prior, Richard had met Virginia on the banks of the Thames for an afternoon discussing not just the appeal of the river, but also about her classic 1983 album From Gardens Where We Feel Secure.

[su_quote]For anyone who has spent hours immersed in the almost eerie, daydream state of From Gardens Where We Feel Secure there will be a moment of familiarity during ‘Moulsford To Cleeve’ in which Astley revisits the moment of shared family drama that inspired the record’s ‘The Fields Are On Fire’

those fields beyond,
how they blazed that time
the wind bellowed the stubble fire
and hearing a siren score the night air
we opened the door to watch
flames taking hold
                        blow-torching the hill.

Stubble burning has been banned in the United Kingdom since 1993. This incident from childhood remains lodged in the memory, but has now been amplified and distorted by the intervening years since it inspired Astley’s piece of music. What had once belonged to the more immediate past is now part of life’s archives.[/su_quote]

The review reveals a lot about the foundations for Virginia’s work on the book, but also offers a glimpse into how her earlier work dovetails into her writing output.

The English River: a journey down the Thames in poems & photographs

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“There is magic to be found in the text and photographs here, and also in this beautiful rendering of what the river actually is”

– Pete Townshend

The publication of The English River: a journey down the Thames in poems & photographs sees Virginia Astley’s chronicle of life on the Thames spring to life.

Virginia grew up by the river’s upper reaches, knew the lock-keepers and was familiar with all aspects of the Thames and its hinterland. These poems tell the story of her return to the Thames, of three years spent tracing its course and of the lives of those connected with the river, as well as her summer spent as a lock-keeper’s assistant based on the upper reach.

The book is introduced by Pete Townshend of The Who. He writes in his foreword:
[su_quote]Virginia’s story is about the river and the people who work on it, especially those who man the locks. She captures a view of the upper reaches of the River Thames that is entirely fresh… Focussing on the professionals who work on the river, and who manage the locks and the flood plains around them, Virginia suggests – as she works as a lock-keeper’s assistant – that they become almost addicted to the peace and beauty of their place of work. She herself becomes enchanted, that is certain. She makes herself vulnerable in the most romantic way, working and writing and evoking everything she sees and feels as both a storyteller and poet, and as photographer[/su_quote]


The English River marks Virginia’s first major publication of poetry and follows on from her 2015 chapbook The Curative Harp. Writing has long been an increasingly important part of her creative output, which includes her 2007 long-form poetry work Maiden Newton Ecliptic. Since then, she has since won prizes (or has been shortlisted) in a variety of writing competitions. This includes The Frogmore, the East Coker Poetry Competition and the Plough Prize. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and is currently completing her book: Keeping the River – a narrative non-fiction based on the River Thames and the lives of those who work and live on the river.

Virginia’s writing career was also given an additional boost when she became writer-in-residence at Thomas Hardy’s Cottage in Dorset in 2017. English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy has been a strong influence on Virginia’s work. During the 1990s she worked on a potential musical based on Hardy’s novel The Woodlanders (Some of these ideas would later surface in song form on Virginia’s 1996 album Had I The Heavens).

The English River combines both photographs and poems to paint a vivid picture of the river and the community that surrounds it.

Virginia will be launching the book with a special reading and performance at Waterstones in Dorchester on 27th June, accompanied by her daughter Florence on harp. Further readings are scheduled to follow at record stores and venues along the Thames.

The English River: a journey down the Thames in poems & photographs is out now on Bloodaxe Books.

Virginia Astley will be giving readings (along with harp accompaniment by Florence Astley) at the following events: Wednesday 27th June 2018, 11am, Waterstones, Dorchester, Dorset, Saturday 4th August 2018, 2pm, Drift Records, Totnes. Details of these and further events can be found on our events page:

Caught by the River Book of the Month

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The English River is Caught By the River’s Book Of The Month for June.

Caught By The River emerged in 2007 as a website that served as a hub for writers, poets and artists, taking the arterial aspect of rivers as an inspiration. Past contributors have included Bill Drummond, Chris Yates, Laura Beatty, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Chris Watson, Charles Rangeley-Wilson, Tim Dee, Pete Fowler and Emma Warren.

In 2016, Caught By The River staged a special event at Bush Hall in London which featured spoken word pieces and music. The event also saw Virginia and daughter Florence in performance.

The Caught By The River site also features a extract from the book, in this case the poem The Singing Way.

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